E X C E R P T
b y p a u l i n e h o l d s t o c k ~ c a n a d a
"PEUGH! FATHER!" The woman shifted her baby to the other breast already squirting milky indignation at the mere mention of paternity. "You mean to tell me you don't know who your mother is?" She had her hand clamped over her left breast in an attempt to stem the milk which continued to flow and was now trickling through her fingers. Tots noticed for the first time a circlet of tiny bones around the woman's neck. And something began to stir in her consciousness, something triggered by the necklace of bones, or was it by the sight of the milk? She had an inkling that she could not quite suppress, one that she knew was about to blossom in her darkest ignorance like a giant firework.
"To be truthful," she said untruthfully—yet she had to lie for how could she even contemplate such a thing, far less say it—"no."
The woman smiled a sad, closed-lipped smile that was all beauty, all love. She put her palm on the baby's dark hair and stroked it, cupping her palm to its skull, caressing. Oh, the tenderness, oh, gentleness! O love—! Tots thought her heart would burst.
"You are!" she blurted. "You're me mum!"
The woman looked up and, tilting her head back, drew a deep breath, closing her eyes and snuffing up her satisfaction as if she could not fill her lungs enough, as if it were the scent of new-mown hay. Then, softly, slowly, and still smiling, she exhaled.
"I knew you would come," she said. "You must be Tots, my twenty-seventh born."
"Yes. This—" she thumbed the baby's downy brow, "this is your little brother."
The baby stopped its sucking and looked up frowning under its mother's touch.
"Oh, he's sweet, inne?" said Tots obligingly. But there were too many questions and some of them were worrying.
"But if I'm your twenty-seventh…what about the other twenty six?"
"What about them?"
"Where are they?"
"Oh, here and there. There and here. Life is a cycle. We come, we go."
It was not a very satisfactory answer but Tots was not sure she was ready to press the matter. Still awed by the earthy beauty of the woman, she preferred for now to accept.
"Fancy," said Tots, happy. It wasn't at all how she had imagined her family, or her mother. She had pictured someone rather like a cross between Scoria and Mrs. Phelum, frazzled but with a heart of gold. It hadn't been a perfect picture but it had been one she could comprehend—and it would have done.
"There's Ben and Gordon too, of course." Ben and Gordon? What was she saying? All the circuits in Tots's brain were live and ready for input. She couldn't possibly mean what Tots thought she meant.
"You mean Mrs. Pinnacle—"
"Mrs. Pinnacle doesn't exist. She is a shadow, an illusion, a phantasm. She is a chimera. Mrs. Pinnacle is the dream you have after eating a banana at bedtime."
"I mean—you're surely not dense, are you? You don't look it—I mean we are all one. One famiy. The world is my child."
Tots had no difficulty accepting this statement, given the woman's—her mother's—exorbitant style. It was a great fluffy cloudbank of extravagance and Tots climbed on. But she did not forget to take her baggage with her.
"So who's me father?"
Tots's mother looked at her and there was a glint of something hard in her glance, no more than a glint, a razor blade in the apple—but unmistakable. And then it was gone. "Why do you ask?"
"Coz it's not Mr. Pinnacle, that's one thing. I know I ain't too bright but I ain't stupid neither."
Cali prised the baby, who appeared to have drowned in excess, from her breast and laid it gently on a pillow. Then, adjusting her kaftan, she got up and took Tots by the hand.
"Look," she said and led her to an alcove. Above three lighted candles stood a statue. Around its base, the playful figures of infants cavorted in a circle of endless innocence. Above them, her flat feet negligent in a tangle of silver offerings, squatted a broad-hipped woman. Her left hand supported the head of an infant at her breast, its mouth latched tight to her nipple. Her own head was bent but she was not watching the suckling child. She was busy with her right hand lifting an infant by the arm, raising it to her lips. And her teeth were bared above its neck.
"Look. She creates all life. Do these children need a father?"
Tots couldn't help thinking that they certainly could do with a mother.
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